Making Peasants Backward: Managing Populations in Russian Agricultural Cooperatives, 1861-1914 by Kotsonis, Yanni

Yanni Kotsonis, Making Peasants Backward: Managing Populations in Russian Agricultural Cooperatives, 1861-1914. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. x + 245 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-312-22099-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Oliver Hayward, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

This study presents succinctly (188 pages of text) the clearest and most thorough explanation yet available in the West of the failure of those ostensibly responsible for the welfare of Russia's peasantry to assist them toward the progress enjoyed by many of their contemporaries in Western and Central Europe...

The final chapter ("Making Peasants Backward, 1900-1914"), takes the various themes from the first four chapters to explain more precisely why the promising programs ostensibly designed to assist Russia's peasants in fact for the most part conspired to "make peasants backward." No element in Russian society--the zemstvo nobility, government ministers and other leaders, the agronomists, and other professionals sent out presumably to assist the peasants - seems to have been able to escape the bluinders created by their own prejudices and preconceptions in order to further the peasants' true interests.

Permeating the entire book is the overwhelmingly pernicious attitude toward the peasantry held by almost every group bearing some responsibility to assist the peasantry. Through extensive quotations from the writings and speeches of representative individuals, Kotsonis demonstrates this attitude to be a mixture of the following specific assumptions: that Russia's peasantry were overwhelmingly illiterate; that they were particularly ignorant in financial matters; that they were therefore in unceasing danger of being exploited and misled by unscrupulous and predatory middlemen, and that they therefore must not be exposed to an impersonal credit market that could only be deleterious to their interests.

Based on these assumptions, the cooperative movement generally focused on bringing professionals down to the peasants in order to guide and protect them, rather than seeking to educate the peasantry and showing them how to more effectively manage their own agricultural activities. Many in the cooperative movement viewed capitalism as a form of predatory power that should not be practiced on or by the peasants except under the close supervision (nadzor) of agronomists and other professionals.

State officials, zemstvo noblemen, and agronomists and other professionals all vied to see which among them should conduct the peasants' affairs for them. Rarely were the peasants involved in the process even consulted on the chance that they might have some useful insights regarding how to improve their lot. Struggles for influence and bureaucratic control took precedence over the interests of the peasants.

Perhaps most ominous of all, Kotsonis suggests, was the attitude with which the various groups responsible for overseeing the peasantry in Russia did so, with attitudes vastly different than those of their counterparts in other parts of Europe. While there were the familiar references to the backwardness and barbarism of peasants in European countries as well, there it was often in a context of the need to mobilize the peasantry into the broader population as a political nation.   In Russia, in contrast, the presumption that peasants could not measure up to the requisite standards of citizenship, self-reliance, progress, and rationality produced not only a failure to recognize the possibility of "dynamic transformation of peasants, but often a caste-like reification of them and a justification of permanent administration over them, 'as if by a foreigner'" (p. 134).

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Citation: Oliver Hayward, "Review of Yanni Kotsonis Making Peasants Backward: Managing Populations in Russian Agricultural Cooperatives, 1861-1914" Economic History Services, May 12, 2000, URL :